Travel tips and funny customs….

**This is being updated as I go – more will follow!**

Italy

  • Trains are safe, fast, reliable. Get an Italiarail pass to enjoy some discounts on travel, attractions, events etc. There is also a VIP lounge for members at Rome station (or you can pay for a day pass) which offers free WiFi, air con, free afternoon nibbles and drinks (inc booze!) and assistance with booking, planning etc.
  • In train stations where there are no electronic schedule boards, look for the printed ones displayed on the walls and on platforms. You should find your scheduled train listed and will guide you to the correct platform.
  • Even if it says you have as little as 5-10 minutes to change at a station, providing it is not a big, main station you should have plenty of time to find your train. The only downside is some stations don’t have lifts/escalators so if you have luggage you will be lugging it up and down steps!
  • Eating out as a vegan can be limited, especially in smaller towns. Even worse if you are celiac or gluten intolerant as main/only choice is likely to be spaghetti pomodoro. Always good to ask for alternatives though as they are usually happy to help. In mid-expensive restaurants you could call ahead so the chef has time to get the ingredients and prepare the dish. I always found this to be appreciated in London and the chefs love having to create something different!
  • Siena was quite tricky for eating out, very limited options, although Bio & Chocolate had lots of sweet and savoury snacks with more filling options at lunch and dinner and was very affordable. It was also located in a quiet street away from the crowds which was very welcome.
  • As with any country, having some basic language skills always goes down well. And Italian is a beautiful, expressive language that is fun to speak in, so maybe brush up on some pleasantries and words that will help you get around.

 

India

  • Udaipur airport is small and has one type of canteen. So unless you’re not fussy, and especially if you’re vegan, it would be wise to take some snacks with you.
  • It is likely you will receive lots of intense stares when out and about. Don’t be put off by this, it’s just curiosity. Mostly.
  • It is likely you will be asked to have a selfie taken with the locals. Be careful if you say yes as a queue might form! In some place (Delhi mostly) they might even ask you to pay them for the privilege! I decided early on to only have my photos taken with children, families or all females. For obvious reasons.
  • Travelling in the trains is relatively safe and easy providing you go with an open mind (which needs to be permanently open if you are to enjoy what India has to offer!) and accept the friendliness of others. If traveling alone as a female, it helps to acknowledge your fellow passengers to make friends and feel safer. Best options are other females and families but I’ve had fine experiences with solo men who will often try a little conversation and share their food.
  • Delhi is totally overwhelming if you haven’t experienced India before. And even if you have it can blow your mind a little. A second visit is usually way more enjoyable when you’ve got your head around it a little, but try not to let it spoil your time.
  • Delhi metro is an excellent and cheap way to get around. Very reliable. There are female-only carriages if you prefer but I’ve also had a nice reception from guys in the general carriages and people tend to give up their seats or make more space for women as well. Only be cautious when traveling during very busy times when the carriages are cramped and you’ll be pushed around in the throng of people getting off/on!

Jaipur!

Wow Jaipur, what a feast for the eyes! Pink buildings, a warm orange sunshine glow, a busy city full of character both in architecture and people! 

 

Leaving Agra and making my way to Jaipur was a straight forward task. I’d got a 2nd class ticket on the Shatabdi Express, which is a fast train that usually also includes food and drink, and boy was it a nice experience – even though the ticket cost only Rs700 (appx £8-9). The staff were quick to stuff my big bag behind a seat and offer me the seat next to it, a window seat, even though this wasn’t my booked seat. No problem, they said! How friendly and accommodating. Then then food…. bottled water, soup and breadsticks, samosas, sandwiches, nuts… and THEN the main dinner came (!) curry, chapatis, pickles, tea… all of it veggie and most of it seemingly vegan which was fortunate as I’d had it in my head it was only a 2-hour journey, when in fact it was 4! So I was saved, I didn’t go hungry…

Arriving in Jaipur in the evening it was already dark and I experienced the first distinct difference of life in Rajasthan, although I think this is probably just Jaipur. Stepping off the train I was immediately flanked by 3-4 tuktuk drivers all vying for my business. Except they were offering a Rs30 ride to anywhere within a 5Km distance! Normally that would be nearer the Rs200 mark. I hadn’t even said yes, or told them where I was going yet they started lowering the price with eventually it being a FREE ride! What was going on?! I continued walking and slightly humouring them as I considered what the catch might be, when two of them got pulled away, apparently by police, for not having licenses. Ah so that’s it then. One of them smelled slightly of alcohol, so I avoided him and eventually a charming new guy made himself known and I thought what the hell, let’s go for it. We stopped briefly to refuel and to get cash from an ATM which also allowed me to see what Jaipur was all about. Another big city, it would seem. Very busy, crowded roads full of drivers who have a penchant to drive fairly fast. Fun! Arriving at my hostel the driver suggested he takes me on a tour of the city the next day and I agree, as this seemed like a good bargain and it’s probably for the best to make arrangements or I’ll just cower in the hostel for a day or two, wasting time rather than just getting out there.

The hostel, Moustache Jaipur, was excellent. Fabulous, welcoming staff, some sporting the logo’s twisty moustache (which I was later to realise is quite traditional for Rajasthan – rather than the trendy gentrified Shoredites of London, although I’m sure that had something to do with it as well) they had an excellent schedule of activities and I loved how we had to take our shoes off before entering the building. Complete with a rooftop restaurant and very smart bathrooms it was easy to feel immediately comfortable and get chatting to the other travellers, making friends.

The next day, I ventured to a nearby rather upmarket raw food cafe for brunch (Anokhi Cafe) that offered many, many vegan options – so many delicious meals it was pretty hard to decide what to have. I opted for the Thai cashew curry and forgot it would be cold when it arrived (raw food, dummy!) but was devine. Locating my tuktuk driver, we meandered through the Pink Palace area and I learned why it is pink (it is considered to be the colour of hospitality and was painted in this colour for the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria’s visit in 1876) although these days it is more orange in colour! Still a nice,  bright, welcoming colour though I felt. From there, on his recommendation, we visited Gaitore (Memory of Kings), a crematory with impressive marble tombs in a quiet location away from the crowds and honking horns. I wasn’t sure I would like it at first, it was hot and I was low in energy, but it proved to be a relaxing place and good for photo opportunities.

From here we visited Jal Mahal, the ‘floating palace’ – or ‘water palace’ as it is apparently known as locally. Or at least, we stood on the bank of the lake and looked at it, as it is This was a special visit as out of all the places in India to see, it was my brother’s favourite. Unfortunately we got there a little too early so the colours were still a bit bland but I promised myself to return the next day when the sun had lowered more so I could try and capture a nice sunset shot. And in time for the actual sunset we headed to Galta Ji (Monkey Temple), a hillside complex with a snaking pavement up to a temple at the top and many, many monkeys, who are used to people and will happily and carefully accept monkey nuts from your hands. It was quite special interacting with them in this way, very gentle – and good karma too!

I’d taken a local ‘guide’ with me to climb up the side of the hill towards the temple, and this proved pretty valuable as he had lots of tips and knew the young children who also played there. I ended up going into a lot of places I wouldn’t have gone if I was alone! And on top of one building, he played with a youngster flying a kite. Kites were pretty popular here, was nice watching them all soar up in the blue sky with the orange sun shining down on us. Was a lovely way to end the day, overlooking the city, interacting with the locals and Just Being. Something I was beginning to realise Indians are very good at.

Returning to the hostel I made friends with my roommate who was about to head out on a night tour with the hostel and on to a ‘pool party’ later. I was in half a mind to stay put in my room but at the last minute decided to just go and meet some new people and see more of the city. The tour was mostly done in the car as there was only a few of us, but we visited Jawahar Kala Kendra, an arts and culture centre, for some delicious marsala dosas (naturally vegan!) and I really liked the ambience and architecture – was a great spot for families, couples, friends…. After here we headed out to the club for the pool party (thankfully bikinis were not needed as it was too cold to get in the pool anyway – I was not ready to don a bikini!) and enjoyed a couple of drinks, a bit of funky dancing to the latest cheesy hits and popular Indian tunes. Was quite an experience being in an nightclub in Jaipur – but it was a Saturday night, so why not!?! And this is where I made my two new best friends. My roomie, and a beautiful soul of a man from Argentina. (We would later change our plans to head to Pushkar together; I love it when things come together).

The next day my roomie and I went for breakfast and got chatting to a young local chap who offered us a great price to hire his tuktuk for the day. He was excellent fun, telling us cheeky jokes with his friend and taking us to a great local’s cafe for dinner (where they would also get free food for taking us there – how sweet!). We visited Amber Fort, which although as a foreigner you pay way more than Indians (which is quite typical in large tourist attractions in India) was very much worth the money and a guide took us around giving just enough information and just enough space and time to absorb it all and take photos, as well as enjoy a joke and some selfies! Then back to the Jal Mahal to try and get that sunset pic (didn’t happen, too hazy) and on to Monkey Temple again and some food at their favourite cafe before heading back to the hostel.

The journey back through town was pretty epic thanks to our skilful but mental young tuktuk drivers. They kept saying ‘Fast and Furious!’ And indeed it was. Speeding along, squeezing between cars and other tuktuks, heading towards three gates, the largest in the middle, of course they opted for the smaller side ones, where there were just inches free either side of the tuktuk and plenty of people coming through the other way…. it was pretty crazy and the more we screamed the more encouraged they got! But we arrived safely and booked them for the next day too! Much to their delight.

The next day we took the Argentinian chap with us and visited a mosque where we sat silently listening to the ladies reading from the scriptures, the odd melody creeping in here and there, was very peaceful and thought-provoking. Next we went to an old library in the Pink Palace which proved to be such a different and enjoyable non-touristy thing to do. Up in the balcony rooms we found ancient books, covered with dust and the light streaming hazily through the windows was just beautiful. More photo ops! Then more food at the local’s cafe, followed by a movie night on the hostel rooftop (Namesake – watch it if you haven’t already seen it. It’s beautiful).

Then the next day….. we were all set to take the bus to Pushkar! I was very excited about this. Fellow travellers were raving about the town and it seemed the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate, feel some peace and quiet away from the cities – something all three of us were craving. So after a final breakfast in the ‘Hole in the Wall’ cafe around the corner from our hostel (which had provided our lush breakfasts every morning so far!) we started our journey to Pushkar, making it up as we went along. Just three happy,  wondering souls 🙂

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Local bus to Pushkar

Next: Pushkar

 

 

 

Agra

Mathura to Agra on a local bus, staying in a quaint guesthouse, visiting The Taj Mahal, Baby Taj and Agra Fort, plus a random bull ….

After a brief overnight stop in Mathura, a town much bigger and busier than I had expected (when will I learn to stop having expectations!) onwards my travels went, to the dubious city of Agra.

The only way I could reach Agra from Mathura (without hiring a driver) was to catch the bus. I was reassured I could just walk up to the bus and pay the driver’s assistant for a seat, and to get there early to bag a seat. Arriving half an hour before the scheduled departure I was directed to a bus that clearly wasn’t the luxury 2+2 AC Volvo I intended to take, but it was going to Agra, so I got on anyway and was helped by the locals arrange my seat and all my luggage as there was no underbus storage. My big case ended up between my legs!

For the first 15 minutes or so I wondered if I’d make the journey without bringing up my breakfast, but soon started to relax into it and found the whole thing quite entertaining watching the men jump on and off the bus while it was still moving and sharing seats to squeeze everyone on. I love how they just get on with it. I shared broken conversations with an older lady sat next to me who also offered me some snacks and a younger guy who had helped me navigate my way on seemed to be checking in on me every now and then, ensuring I was ok. Was nice.

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Getting cosy on the locals bus from Mathura to Agra

It became clear however that we were not actually going into Agra… Watching the route unfold on GoogleMaps (saved my life again!) we seemed to be continuing on the main highway passing just north of the city so I asked the conductor where I should get off and he looked horrified and pointed back at the way we’d just come! So they urgently pulled the bus over and then commenced a hurried frenzy while I tried to grab all my bags and squeeze passed the other passengers to quickly get off the bus whilst the conductor shouted at some cheeky men who were trying to take advantage of the stopped bus to sneak on. Was quite a moment! And then I found myself on the side of a very busy road with a bunch of other locals also trying to catch buses.

Nevermind, no biggie.

Within minutes I was tucked into a tuktuk to meander for 30 minutes along dusty, bumpy roads to the guesthouse. The driver was quite young and rather good looking I must say! His English was quite good and after learning I’d been in India for two months and come from England, he said how much he loved England and proposed that I should take him there for two months hahahaha. I think he was actually quite serious. Still, I passed him up on that tempting suggestion (sarc). During this illuminating ride I also got my first glimpse of the Taj… the driver pulled over to I could get a quick pic. I was actually quite moved emotionally just from seeing it in the far distance, gleaming in the late afternoon sun.

Soon we arrived at the Guesthouse (Tourist Rest Hotel), a really pretty residency with a lovely courtyard restaurant to chill out in away from the busy streets. Acknowledging my hungry tummy I headed straight out to a nearby HappyCow listed restaurant, Zorba the Buddha, a 10 minute walk away, which would help me get a feel for my new surroundings. I was the only one dining but was soon joined by the owner who shared many stories and then met his wife and children. He invited me for (black) chai in his cafe next door (Hills Cafe) that had recently opened and to check out the rather cute rooftop terrace. It was so pretty with lots of coloured lights and lamps, a few swinging chairs and murals. It looked quite romantic! Was interesting to hear about their lives and how businesses have been suffering since Trip Advisor overtook the Lonely Planet guide and where one bad review can put off new customers.

As it was dark by the time I left, I decided against walking back to the guesthouse but two tuktuk drivers I approached both wanted Rs100 to basically take me around the corner. I walked on and came across an elderly man with tired but kind eyes who agreed to take me there for Rs30. However after seeing him struggle to push me on what became a double-the-time ride I gave him the Rs100 I would have otherwise given the tuktuk driver – I felt he deserved it so much more!

Then it was time to make a plan:

I wanted to see the Taj Mahal at both sunrise and sunset, to get all the photo opportunities I could manage all in one day. There seemed to be good reviews of getting photos in the evening from the river Yamuna that flows by the backside of the Taj, but there were also mentions of this being banned. Hmmmm. The next best place to watch the Taj in the sunset apparently was from a park over the river, Mehtab Bagh, so that became part of the plan. Rise early in the morning and go into the Taj complex for sunrise and then head over the river to the park for sunset. In the day I would visit Agra Fort and later, before the park visit the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, aka ‘Baby Taj’.

The next day I overslept by an hour but still forced myself out of my comfy bed by 5:30am and out into the dark by 6am. Luckily there was a driver waiting in the reception area, which saved me from flagging one down in the dark road, and we agreed he would be on call all day to take me to the other places I wanted to see, whenever I was ready, for a small fee. On arrival, he pulled over to a side street and directed me down the darkened alley to where the ticket office was. I kept my ‘positive head’ on and strolled purposefully down ignoring the randoms hanging around and, with the help from a kind man, found the right queue to get my ticket. Then onto another queue to get into the Taj complex. As we waited for the gates to open the sun started to rise and we all new we had missed the glorious colours of first light, but luckily, not many people had turned up that morning and I found myself in only a small crowd vying for the best position for the best photo opportunity.

One thing that made me laugh as I entered the complex was being asked by one of a group of ‘professional photographers’ if I wanted to hire a photographer. One of his colleagues laughed out loud and shouted ‘why are you asking her, she has a good camera with her, she doesn’t need us, stupid!’ Oh how I laughed!

Seeing the Taj for the first time really was quite surreal. I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t a painting! It was really there, right in front of me. The rising sun was starting to make it’s facade glow and against the hazy blue morning sky was really quite a sight. I took numerous photos and began walking towards it. I silently prayed and thanked my late Grandad for making this possible for me. I felt his presence, and his pride that, like him, I had been born with a deep wanderlust and love for travelling to different places and experiencing different cultures. Tears fell as I both missed him and appreciated all that he was and will always be in my mind and heart.

After taking as many pictures as I could I made my way back to the tuktuk driver and as I waited for him to arrive said hello to many passing schoolgirls and had a little chat with a man from Nepal. I am loving how friendly and curious the people of India are. Back at the guesthouse I processed the images over breakfast and was pleased with the results. The incredible architecture and near perfect light provided just what I wanted. If I hadn’t managed to capture it in the way I hoped to, I would have been very disappointed!

Then back out to Agra Fort. After walking around the courtyard I went to sit on a bench and think about why the tuktuk driver had said I’d need about an hour and a half as I seemed to have done the surprisingly small fort quite quickly. On the next bench a girl sat in the sun and it turns out she was also thinking the same thing. We decided that we had only seen a small part of it and went off to seek the other parts of the complex, which through a small, unsignposted doorway we found! Was nice having someone to chat to and experience a place with. She also loved photography and was good at finding some creative viewpoints. Coincidentally we both had to return to our tuktuks at the same time so we walked together and said our goodbyes, knowing that despite having a similar plan for the next town or two the timings would be off and we’d be unlikely to cross paths again. But as I say, you never know!

Later on I visited the Baby Taj and then went to the park to watch the big Taj during the sunset. The sun sets to the right of the building and didn’t therefore reflect the back side that we could see so it wasn’t quite as grand as I’d hoped (so glad I had made it out that morning!) but the sunset itself was a proper Indian one, with a huge bright deep red-orange sun lowering itself in the distance. So not great for photos in the end, but what made the visit was getting to chat to a couple of college girls who swapped stories and recommended places for me to visit, especially in Goa, where one of them had recently undertaken an internship. They were part of a group and I noticed the rest of them were listening in and looked quite intrigued and humoured by our ongoing conversation. Then it was time to go.

 

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Sun setting at the Taj Mahal

That night I ate in the guesthouse restaurant. It gets cold in the evenings now so I wrapped up well and finished the meal (vegetable biryani) with a hot ginger tea before heading back to my room for a good night’s sleep – and a lie in!

I have to say that I think Agra is nowhere near as bad as some people have said. I didn’t have any hassles at the Taj, even though I went alone – something I keep reading you shouldn’t do as a woman – and I have met many, many helpful people; from the hotel staff to the drivers, vendors, strangers etc. This morning, for instance, I popped out of the guesthouse and on my return found a huge bull standing in the doorway blocking the entrance…. I took a photo (of course) and laughed as I considered whether trying to get past him was such a good idea. Within seconds a guy who had been sat nearby raced over and stood between me and the bull so I could get by and into the safety of the guesthouse. See, how kind! Thank you Agra, it has been a pleasure.

Am looking forward to the next stop on my adventure: Jaipur!

Delhi to Mathura

Train ride, helpful fellow passengers, the temple where Lord Krishna is said to have been born, Vishram Ghat, making a gaff in a sacred place…. 

Mathura is a town 185Km South of Delhi, where it is said Lord Krishna was born. For me, this became a must-visit place as my spiritual awakening and intrigue has been mounting since being in Rishikesh and undertaking the yoga course.  It also seems to score me points when mentioning it to any of the locals!

Getting to the train was a bit stressful thanks to a messy Uber ride where the driver went around in circles leaving me with little more than 10 minutes to find the station (he had no idea), the correct platform, the correct coach (again, a very long train) but where my name was not printed on the list (what?!) but I was reassured by the breakfast vendor to just get on anyway (thank you!) and went about locating my seat and somewhere to store my luggage. It was a sleeper carriage (my first time) and the two families I would be sitting with had already arranged themselves but were very welcoming in making space for me. My seat had been switched by one of the fathers so he could sit with his son/companion, but I didn’t mind as I was only staying on for two hours – this train was heading all the way down South, some 36hrs or so! Even though I soon wished I was in the window seat as we passed by some gorgeous countryside with people working in the fields and realised there would be some great photo opportunities for my ongoing personal project.

Still I was happier that they could get comfortable for their long journey ahead. They were all very pleasant and even turned off the sound on their child’s game as they thought it was disturbing me – I was just trying to see out the window! The children were very well behaved and I loved the way the parents spoke to them when they acted out – all kind words and reasoning, was so nice. Quite different to some encountered back home! So the train ride was pleasant and I reached my destination pretty much on time. Then it was back to negotiating a price for a taxi ride to the hotel and saying over and over I didn’t want to hire him for the day to see all the temples! The usual 😀

The hotel (Hotel Silver Star) was nice, quite different from a hostel as there was no hub to meet other travellers and the restaurant below was closed for some reason, so I was to be room-ridden. Unfortunately HappyCow had no listings for eating in the local area and although the nearby town of Vrindavan (where Lord Krishna is said to have grown up) did have a few, I decided I wouldn’t go there after all as there wasn’t enough time to do that and see Mathura itself. Also, my stomach seemed to be a little upset so I didn’t fancy venturing too far away from ‘home’. Therefore the plan became visiting the local Hindu temple, Shri Krishna Janmbhoomi, the spot where Lord Krishna is said to have been born, then on to Vrishram Ghat and maybe stay for the aarti at sunset, where they offer flowers to the river, then back to the hotel for food.

After a lovely tuktuk drive with a fabulous driver, who kept saying Hare Krishna! to me (think maybe it was my orange scarf) down the busy street and putting in pretty much all of my belongings in the cloakroom (no phones, cameras, food etc is allowed in the temple) I entered the temple and felt immediately at peace. There were some talks and music going on in the courtyard area and lots of shops to buy trinkets, ceremony items, food and so on, as well as a museum with lots of archives and history. I wandered around quite happy and enjoyed a few giggles with some of the young girls and women with their babies.

From here I got another tuktuk to the Ghat, which made for a very bumpy ride down narrowing, busy streets until we reached the walkway that led to the Ghat. The tuktuk driver pointed me in the direction I needed to go, so off I went. And this became where I made my first gaff in a sacred place. As I walked along, I was welcomed by a man sitting in a shrine to the side of the walkway, which was really nice, but I still didn’t clock that the archway I was about to walk through was the entrance to a temple. I could see the river a few steps ahead so just thought it was the walkway to the ghat. Once I reached the steps of the ghat I had several guys ask me to join a boat ride, which I declined although was contemplating it as it could be quite nice. I took a couple of photos of the river with the colourful boats lined up… and it was then noted by the same guys that I still had my shoes on and that I was actually in a temple! Oops! I decided to hastily retreat and head back to the street to try and find another way to the ghat for photo opportunities but everywhere I came to was yet another temple… This is where all the culture proceedings and ‘what-to-do-in-a-temple’ became all too confusing in my pea-brain and I decided to make my way back to the hotel to recover. Especially as the evening aarti wasn’t until AFTER sunset…. I didn’t fancy hanging around after dark, although I’m sure it would have been safe to do so.

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Vishram Ghat

So turning on the trusty GoogleMaps (hooray!) I was led on a 20 minute walk back to the hotel. At first I just wandered through the busy streets with all the shop fronts, sometimes nodding or saying hello to the vendors or people passing by. But soon I was walking down a side alleyway, full of housing and local people coming and going. It was very nice and peaceful but I did wonder how I would be received waking around these more intimate parts of Indian life. I needn’t have worried. It was like being a celebrity! I had a few children running up to walk with me and say hello, women would smile shyly and appreciate and return my ‘namaste’ as I passed by, some would look inquisitively not sure what to make of my presence but I never felt scared. As the sun started to darken I hoped I would make it back before it got properly dark, as street lighting wasn’t really a thing in these alleyways. Soon the road widened and felt better but there were also less people walking, like me, and seemed to be an influx of guys on scooters riding by, getting a good look and giggling. Only one caused me some concern as he turned his bike around and came in closer as he passed. I scowled with my best ‘don’t even try it Mister’ look and he disappeared, thankfully. To be honest I do feel if anyone gave me any bother, some locals would step in. I just get that feeling. Which is reassuring. But staying open in heart and mind, having faith and being inquisitive about the culture and respecting the customs (particularly how you dress, as a woman) really helps.

That evening I had a tasty dinner of tadka dal, rice and chapati, which seemed to be fine on my stomach.  Then slept like a baby until the next morning, where I rose refreshed, did some yoga and ate my favourite breakfast: peanut masala!

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Peanut masala – my favourite breakfast!

The I had to find the bus to Agra. Not only was I catching the bus for the first time, I was also travelling without any pre-booking – I wasn’t confident it was the right way to go! But I had to have trust, trust it would all work out. And if it didn’t, there will always be another way around it.

Next stop: Agra!